Whiskey 101

Tackling an intro to whiskey is a tricky prospect. It’s like writing an intro to “food.” Whittling it down to a few basics is daunting. My first attempt was heavy on explaining the different types of whiskies, the laws surrounding their creation, and other minutiae that seemed perfectly reasonable as a “whiskey 101” summary.

Then I reconsidered. Knowing the laws, what barrels are used, the history and process of distilling — is this going to help someone walking into a whiskey bar or store for the first time? It’s interesting info (for whiskey nerds), and basic in a way — but not in a way that is practical for that first venture beyond a shot of Jameson’s or a Jack and Coke. So this is more of a “Whiskey Ordering 101.”

So the first thing you need to know — scotch, bourbon, rye, J&B, Maker’s Mark, Jameson’s, The Macallan, Pappy Van Winkle — it’s all whiskey. At it’s most basic definition, whiskey is a spirit distilled from grain and (usually) aged in oak barrels. The grain you use, the amount of time you age it, what (if anything) was in the barrel before you put whiskey in it — these are all variables left up to the individual distillers, though there are international laws governing what you can and can’t do and still put “whiskey” on the label.

Next question — are you a scotch drinker or a bourbon drinker? Yeah, yeah — Canada, Ireland, Japan… I know; but we have to limit ourselves here, and scotch and bourbon are still the giants on the block. This is tricky, because scotch has a wildly diverse taste profile. Some of them taste like a syrupy dessert and some taste like a burning motorcycle engine. Bourbon has less variation in flavor, but there are still a lot of different tastes out there.

The only way you can answer this question, in the end, is experimentation — but there are worse things you can experiment with. Let’s say you’re going to try a bourbon and a scotch tonight.

Rule number one for all whiskey is if you judge its worthiness based on price, age, or rarity, then you have already messed up. I’ve had terrible whiskey that costs hundreds of dollars, and I’ve had a $9 bottle that was fantastic. Never ever believe the hype. Only trust your own tastebuds to tell you what’s good.

Let’s start with bourbon. The gateway bourbons most people know even if they aren’t big whiskey drinkers — Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, probably Knob Creek. You can find these at just about any bar. Walk into a bourbon bar though, and your options increase dramatically. So what to choose? If you are in a whiskey bar, don’t be afraid to ask the bartender for a recommendation. People open and work at whiskey bars because they love whiskey, and they will be more than happy to offer advice. They are usually very good at answering, “What would you recommend? I’m new to whiskey.”

You don’t need to start out with Pappy Van Winkle, if you can even find it. My personal recommendation for a starter bourbon: Jim Beam Black. It’s the perfect blend of affordable and exceptional.

Next question — how do I drink it? Ice, no ice, with soda, in a shot, by the pint? The rule of thumb is that you drink whiskey the way you want to drink whiskey, but for our purposes here: no soda, no shots. Order your whiskey “neat” with a glass of water. Later on, if you decide you want ice, that’s cool. But right now let’s hold off. It’s easier to add ice than it is to take it away.

Have a whiff of your whiskey. Hold it near your nose, keep your mouth open a little, don’t swirl it (that’s for wine), and have a sniff. You’re going to get a lot of different scents. Caramel, vanilla, wood, BBQ — it depends on the whiskey and your nose. Now with that out of the way, have a sip — not a big one, but enough to coat your mouth. Let it linger. You’re thinking about the taste.

Once you’ve had time to think about it, swallow.

So you also have that glass of water. Add a few drops to the whiskey. Wait, what? I thought adding water was for chumps! You drink your whiskey straight, hiss, then grimace… right?

Relax. This ain’t a Sergio Leone movie. Alcohol is an anesthetic, which means the more of it you have, the less you taste, and we want to taste our whiskey. Adding a few drops of water to whiskey does not weaken it. What it does is open up the flavor. That said, sometimes you just prefer whiskey without water. Try it both ways.

Finished your first dram? Take your time. There’s no trophy for finishing first. Now finish that water. Nothing’s more unsightly than someone who can’t handle their whiskey, and everyone who drinks whiskey for pleasure knows the value of water. It keeps you from getting drunk (to an extent, anyway) and also freshens your palette. In fact, have another water.

Now scotch. Some scotch tastes like bourbon. Others seem an entirely different drink. Scotch — it comes from Scotland, y’know — is a more complex topic, so let’s stick to the very basics. You have blended scotch, and you have single malts. Single malts come from one distillery and are made from one grain (malted barley). Blends combine a bunch of different single malts and mix them with more inexpensive “neutral grain” spirit. Blended scotch is more common, more accessible, and generally more affordable. Most of the scotch you know if you don’t know a lot about scotch is a blend — Johnnie Walker, Chivas, J&B.

Now, what to order? Once again, if your bartender knows whiskey, ask them. Do you like sweet? Smoky? Mellow? Something similar to an engine block? They’ll suss out a good first dram for you. If your bartender doesn’t know whiskey, then find a new bar.

So let’s get you off Johnnie Walker Black, whether you’ve had it before or not. Ask for Johnnie Walker Green or Chivas. Johnnie is smokier, Chivas is sweeter and more akin to bourbon. If you want to order a single malt, the most common are Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet, or Macallan.

All are decent first scotches. Scotch is more obsessed with age than bourbon, but don’t be fooled. Twelve year old stuff will do plenty well. Drink it the same way you drank your bourbon. And don’t forget your water.

So where do you go from here? Like I said, there are a lot of whiskies out there, and if you didn’t like the one you just had, the next one will be totally different. The best way to get a feel for what you like is to go to a tasting. Most cities have them, either at bars or liquor stores. It’s a great way not just to drink for free, but also to get a feel for the difference between whiskies and which flavors you like or dislike.

If you’ve got a decent bar that specializes in whiskey, they probably do tastings too or offer “flights” that let you compare. In this setting, you’ll almost always get a guided tour, with someone taking you through the art of distilling and drinking in fine detail. They are the best way to continue learning.

The most important thing to remember is that this is your toe in the waters of a vast ocean… a vast, delicious, brown ocean. Whiskey attracts a lot of people because there is so much esoterica. Was your scotch finished in an old bourbon cask or an old sherry butt? How much corn is in your bourbon? What’s rye? Why isn’t Jack Daniels bourbon? What’s this clear stuff I see on the shelf? What the fuck is SoCo? And what’s this I hear about Japanese whiskey?

Hey, that’s why people obsess about this stuff their whole life.

The immensely talented Keith Allison is the editor of the wonderful website Teleport City, where you can read more about the world of whiskey, music and cult cinema.


Dan at 22 Aug 2011

Thanks for sharing these tips. My next pub adventure will probably go a lot smoother as a result.

Guest at 24 Aug 2011

I <3 Whiskey

That guy... at 29 Aug 2011

Thanks for the tips. Important etiquette note: Whisky vs Whiskey: The spelling Whisky is used for whiskies distilled in Scotland, Wales, Canada, and Japan, while Whiskey is only used for the spirits distilled in Ireland and America. --That guy ;)

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